A 25 year old Harry Houdini in a publicity shot photographed in 1899.
Harry Houdini (1874-1926) rose from humble beginnings as a boy in Budapest and a poor Jewish teenager in New York to become the most famous escape artist in 20th century America. His work not only broke through the boundries of what human beings were thought capable of doing but also broke through the even thicker walls of bigotry and prejudice. Harry Houdini is remembered today as a legendary showman and magician whose life and death is still shrouded in mystery.
Eric of the Air
Ehrich “Harry Houdini” Weisz was born into family of four boys to a Rabbi and a country girl in Budapest, Hungary. At four, Ehrich’s family migrated to America first settling in Appleton, Wisconsin as the Weiss family. His father was named the leader of the local Jewish Orthodox Church. Over the next few years two more children were born.
When Samuel Weiss lost his congregation, due to his strict adherence to orthodox views, he and eight year old Ehrich moved from Wisconsin to New York City to search for work. During this time, they lived in a crowded boarding house on East 79th Street. Young Ehrich worked several jobs, including as a “newsie” and shoe shine boy or “bootblack”.
In New York, Ehrich discovered the adventures of 19th century French magician, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, whom he would later take the stage name Houdini from. It’s not hard to imagine the young Ehrich working a series of menial jobs day in and day out and dreaming of being a mysterious magician while in reality he and his father were desperately poor and living in one the most crowded and dangerous cities in the world.
When Samuel Weiss brought the rest of the family to New York, a few years later, Ehrich began performing in the streets with his older brother Theodore. They performed in city parks and at Coney Island where Enrich undertook a variety of unsuccessful routines such as a daredevil trapeze artist “Eric of the Air”, simple hucksterism, and enacting sleight of hand routines as the “King of Cards”. This was all well before Ehrich began performing in minor escape acts with Theodore in the “The Brothers Houdini”.
Before and after work, when the brothers couldn’t find audiences to give them money they would beg for coins. In Ruth Brandon’s biography The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini she retells how a young Houdini would give coins he had begged for to his mother by making them mysteriously emerge from her hair in silver fountains. If that failed in causing a smile, he would hide them in his pockets and tell her, “Shake me, I’m magic!” and proceed to sprout puddles of pennies and nickels.
Rabbi Weiss died in 1892 leaving a family of five boys and one girl. At this time, all of the family worked in New York’s garment district sweatshops to survive. Ehrich himself worked sewing together men’s ties in the sweatshops. In 1893, at 19, he met his future wife Wilhelmina “Bess” Rahner, a struggling singer and dancer, while performing at Coney Island. She eventually replaced Theodore as Houdini’s assistant. They performed together for the next six years and in 1899, Houdini was discovered by a vaudeville agent while the act was traveling in Illinois. There, Houdini was offered a contract to tour Europe which he gladly accepted.
King of Handcuffs
Harry Houdini in Cleveland, Ohio circa 1915.
In 1890, Ehrich threw himself into European public relations the likes of which have never been seen. As part of his over the top advertising, he would stop in the jail of every village or city that he toured to challenge the local police to keep him locked inside a cell for one night. As part of the routine, he would be strip searched, shackled and then led into a cell only to escape by morning. He succeeded each time, even freeing himself from a Siberian prison train, leading skeptics to charge him with cheating by bribing jail guards.
Not one to allow slander, a trait he must have inherited from his proud father, Houdini sued a police officer in Cologne, Germany for making one such false allegation. He won by a demonstration in opening a hefty safe from the inside. The safe, itself, belonged to the judge in the case. The amazing escape cleared Houdini of any wrong doing – winning the law suit and prestige for Houdini.
In London, Houdini spent nearly an hour freeing himself from a set of specially designed handcuffs before a crowd of 400 people and 100 journalists. Never before had Houdini had such a difficult time in an escape – requiring nearly an hour of sustained effort. Only after Bess surreptitiously passed him a special key did he manage to free himself before the thunderous applause of the crowd.
These tactics of showmanship, publicity stunts and spending nearly ten years traveling exhaustively in Europe and Russia, made Ehrich widely known as “The Handcuff King” in Europe. For several years he was the highest paid vaudeville entertainer in the world. His unusual talents provided Houdini with a new found wealth that he had struggled to find since he was a boy a in America.
After returning to the US in 1907, one of the first things Houdini did was buy a brownstone home in the German part of Harlem for $25,000 for his mother and siblings in New York. He published a book called Handcuff Secrets in 1909, and determined to be more than a simple conjurer began devising a series of ever larger illusions that would place his life in danger.
The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls
Starting in 1912, his stunts evolved into elaborate escapes from watery graves or being held in mid-air and set aflame. Right before the audience’s unbelieving eyes, and no longer behind the safety of a curtain, he was locked in chains, hand-cuffed, crammed into straitjackets, bound with thick ropes and then given a few minutes to escape.
Harry Houdini slipping out of a straitjacket while hanging upside down over 46th and Broadway in Manhattan circa 1915.
With only the air in his lungs to survive, he performed his definitive Chinese Water Torture act. In this performance, Houdini was regularly required to hold his breath for three minutes as he unlocked a series of chains and restraints to free himself from a 5′ x 3.5′ re-inforced glass chamber. The original cell was built in England, where Houdini first performed the escape for an audience of one person as part of a one-act play he called “Houdini Upside Down”. This was so he could copyright the effect and have grounds to sue imitators – which he often did.
The Overboard Box routine evolved from the Milk Can Escape that he performed on stage in vaudeville. In his unique role as a performer that could go anywhere and do anything Houdini would escape from a chest that was chained and nailed shut while he was held in heavy shackles. To further complicate the act, the chest would be thrown into the East River in front a large audience. Houdini escaped from the chest as quickly as 57 seconds leaving only a pair of empty manacles in the wooden box.
Buried Alive, one of Houdini’s acts that has been repeated many times, involved Houdini literally being buried alive strapped in a straitjacket and then to emerge – clawing his way to the surface – unharmed. In 1917, in Santa Ana, during his first public performance of the act the heavy weight of the earth pressed down on Houdini nearly killing him. Afterwards, he would use a specially built bronze casket to avoid being crushed or suffocated.
Houdini, ever resourceful and wary of competition, also patented a small specialized “diving suit” that he used in some of his escapes. The innovation was granted as U.S. Patent Number 1,370,316 on March 1, 1921.
Spiritualism and the Houdini Picture Corporation
Houdini, in a publicity shot, in his fifties.
In the 1920s, spiritualism became a great interest in America. His competitors, like the Davenport Brothers, ascribed much of their own illusions to supernatural powers. Something of the hard-working religious character in Ehrich must have taken great offense in this tactic. Altough he had used the aura of “ghost worlds” in some of his early routines he always attributed his escapes to his own natural skills. Where his “powers” were purely physical or intellectual and advertised as simply mysterious the various charlatans of his day were using superstitious beliefs to bilk large and small audiences out of fortunes.
After his mother’s death in 1913, and researching spiritualism himself, Houdini became convinced that the practitioners were frauds, and he spent much of his time debunking the fakes. In his vaudeville shows he advertised a “Three Shows in One: Magic, Escapes, and Fraud Mediums Exposed.” Where he would explain how mediums would research their victims or how they used common parlor tricks to fool them into believing they were contacting dead relatives. He was even more merciless to magicians that claimed spiritual powers.
Houdini challenged one of these “mystical” performers, the Egyptian Conjurer Rahman Bey, in August of 1925 to better the mystic’s record of spending an hour underwater in a small, sealed container. Houdini remaining at the bottom of a New York Public pool for an hour and a half, in a casket, using none of the special powers that Rahman Bey claimed to allow him to survive. Houdini would later say that all he did was control his breathing.
He was also a early Special Effects artist in the new medium of motion pictures and acted as a consultant on early films made by Pathe Films (inventors of the newsreel) in France. Building on his many appearances in newsreels, in 1919, The Master of Mystery series was made. It was a 15 part serial in which Harry performed his trademark escapes on film. The series was released to early matinee audiences as a success. Houdini formed the Houdini Picture Corporation with it’s own film lab going into business with his brother Theodore. They made two features, The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923). But, in late 1923, citing lack of profits, Houdini abandoned motion pictures.
The Final Challenger
In the end, Houdini’s reknowned hubris would eventually be his undoing. For all of his death defying feats, he died as a result of long standing personal challenge to his audience in late October of 1926. Nine days prior to his death (and with a broken ankle on the mend from the previous night’s show) his challenge was accepted in Montreal by a McGill University college student and amateur boxer named J. Gordon Whitehead.
Among his many challenges to his audience, Houdini had long laid claim that he could painlessly absorb any blow to the gut. But, before being prepared for the strike, Whitehead struck him three times – doubling Houdini over where he lay. Apparently Houdini was already suffering from appendicitis at this point and Whitehead’s punches ruptured the organ. Houdini did not seek medical attention and continued to perform for a few days afterward. He finally had the appendix removed on the 29th of October before dying of peritonitis and sepsis due two days later at the age of 52. Ehrich Weisz died on Halloween in a Detroit hospital saying, “I guess this thing is going to get me…”
Houdini’s death was a great shock to the country. Theodore eventually took up the Houdini act and would perform his brother’s escape routines, as Hardeen, until 1945. According to his will, the Houdini book collection, valued at $30,000 at the time, was left to the Library of Congress where it remains today as part of a larger collection on Houdini.
Ironically, after Ehrich’s death, his wife Bess held yearly seances on Halloween attempting to use spiritualism to unsuccessfully contact her departed husband’s soul. After ten years, Bess ended the practice saying “Ten years is long enough to wait for any man.” Bess died in 1943 well provided for by Houdini’s legacy.
Harry Houdini remains an enigmatic performer who was celebrated during his time as “the young Hungarian magician with the pleasant smile and easy confidence.” Today, he is remembered as a titan of his craft and an inspiration to many modern magician’s such as David Copperfield and David Blaine.
References: Wikipedia, Theodore Hardeen, Harry Houdini, HoudiniTribute.com, Legendary Escapes!, Find-A-Grave, Harry Houdini, Humbugs of the World, P.T. Barnum, New York: G.W. Carelton, 1865, Magician Among the Spirits, Harry Houdini, New York: Harper, 1924., The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, Ruth Brandon, London: Secker & Warburg, 1993. Appleton Public Library, Harry Houdini, Adam Woog Wisconsin: Lucent Books, 1994